Since when did Americans go from talking about the likelihood of weekend rain to practically fist fighting over changing weather patterns? “Save the planet!” they’ll demand of you, as they wave their placards in the air. Seems a bit arrogant to think that mankind is capable of determining nature’s fate, but the debate is irrelevant. We should be cleaning up the planet and aligning ourselves more closely with nature, regardless of which political party flag we’re waving. It couldn’t be better said than below:
Nature is the single most powerful technology known to man, and we know so little of how it works. The method in which cells reproduce and perform tasks is the most efficient manufacturing platform conceivable, which is why we speak about companies like Ginkgo Bioworks with a hushed reverence. If mankind can somehow harness the superior properties of observable nature, we can transform entire industries, all while saving the planet during the process.
Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy.
The Promise of Biomimicry
Biomimicry, biomimetics, nature-inspired, these are all terms for products or materials that are based on inspirations taken from nature. We first covered this topic in our 2017 piece on 8 Biomimicry Examples Taken From Actual Startups, and more recently in last year’s piece on Bolt Threads and Spider Web Clothing. The latter is a startup that’s mimicking a spider’s incredibly functional threads. While entrepreneurs have been trying to mimic nature for decades, this time it’s different. This time, we have lots of tools at our disposal, things like artificial intelligence, gene editing, genetic sequencing, and the list goes on. Today, we’re going to look at some startups taking inspiration from nature to help her heal.
Better Filters from Butterflies
In 2015, researchers found that the glasswing butterfly’s transparent wings are caused by nanopillars that are irregularly arranged and feature a random height and width distribution. This is different from other anti-reflection coatings found in nature, and just one of many interesting things you can learn by studying the wings of a butterfly. And that’s exactly what our first startup has been doing.
Founded in 2017, Bahstun startup Metalmark has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding with the most recent being an April 2020 seed round. The team took inspiration from a butterfly’s wings to develop indoor air purification systems that destroy, rather than trap, volatile organic compounds, viruses, and ultrafine particles. The platform can be applied to a variety of use cases such as specialty coatings, emission control, chemical production, fuel cells, and carbon dioxide conversion.
Initially, they’ll need to settle on a single use case and demonstrate product-market-fit, something the CEO should know the importance of. Steering the Metalmark ship is Sissi Liu, an experienced executive with more than 17 years in cleantech and sustainability, entrepreneurship, and venture investing. She’s made sure they’ve locked up some intellectual property by licensing technology from the Wyss Institute and Harvard SEAS who have developed “a new type of catalytic coating that is inspired by the honeycomb-like nanostructure of a butterfly’s wing.”
The technology is said to significantly decrease the amount of precious metals used by the $20 billion catalytic converter industry. This use case is particularly notable given that catalytic converter theft has gone through the roof because rare precious metal prices have done the same.
The thief makes a couple hundred bones for a few minutes’ work while the car owner – or their insurance company – are out a few thousand. Maybe soon, stealing catalytic converters will become a thing of the past. That would also decrease the demand for rare metals which are often mined in emerging markets where environmental impact is an afterthought.
Wind Turbines from Kingfishers and Maple Leaves
It’s not just Japanese bullet trains that take inspiration from the kingfisher’s beak, a streamlined object that can be plunged into water without so much as a ripple forming. Founded in 2015, Canadian firm Biome Renewables has taken in $1.9 million in funding to develop the PowerCone, a turbine retrofit that can be fitted to 98% of all installed turbines around the world resulting in a +13% increase in annual energy production.
The kingfisher helped inspire the design of the mini-blades, and so has Canada’s iconic maple leaf, something that becomes obvious when you look at the above picture. The problem that’s being solved is called “root leakage,” and it refers to the center of a wind turbine not pulling it’s weight and actually dragging down the blades around it, an aerodynamics issue that’s far better explained by someone without an MBA. It all comes down to some bolt-on efficiency for the (as of 2017) 341,000 turbines spinning away on our revolving planet. Couple that hardware with some software, and a nice software-as-a–service (SaaS) offering could be sold to the more than 30 suppliers of wind turbines across the globe
Composites from Mantis Shrimp
When a mantis shrimp attacks it’s prey, it does so with such speed – about that of a 22. caliber bullet – that the water vaporizes. That weapon the shrimp uses is made of ultra-tough material, and that’s where inspiration was taken to do the same for existing composite materials, such as fiberglass, carbon fiber, and fiber.
Founded in 2019, Los Angeles startup Helicoid Industries has taken in $2.4 million in disclosed funding, all of which came in the form of a September 2020 seed round. The company spent $12 million over the last 14 years developing their Helicoid architecture, a materials-agnostic method of stacking parallel fibers in order to make composites stronger, more impact resistant, more durable, and more sustainable, all at a lower production cost. Increasing the lifespan of materials means we’ll need to manufacture less of them, which means the planet will be all the better for it.
An article by Manufacturing Technology Insights talks about how the Helicoid architecture technology was launched at the beginning of the year 2020, with more than two dozen composite materials manufacturers building prototypes using the structure and testing them for various applications. It’s a $100 billion industry that stands to benefit from an animal that shoots a stream of water when picked up, what the Chinese call a pissing shrimp.
Hydrophobic Cleaning Materials from Plants
The promise of hydrophobic materials has been a flagship idea for many the startup. For example, the lotus leaf is known for repelling both dirt and water because of its roughly-textured surface covered in one-nanometer crystals. Anyone remember Nano-Tex?
Founded in 2018, Pennsylvania’s own spotLESS Materials took inspiration from plants to develop a collection of non-stick coatings designed to use less water and less aggressive cleaners to keep surfaces clean (LESS stands for liquid-entrenched smooth surface). The whole thing started when Sir William of Gates wanted to investigate how to get poo to flush while using less water. The below picture explains the desired effect.
spotLESS found that most hydrophobic coatings are excellent at repelling liquid, but fall short in their ability to repel sludge-like material. That led to a series of household products being developed which are now available on the company’s website. For $15, their toilet coating will make your servant’s life a whole lot easier.
In 2019, spotLESS received some very early stage funding from Y Combinator and an angel investor to develop their technology into household products, which they did. While it sounds like a “build it and they will come” business model, they did receive some validation from a company that might help sell those products. One of our dividend champions, Proctor & Gamble, endorsed spotLESS by crowning them a finalist in their 2021 innovation challenge.
We often see many nanomaterials companies selling products on their websites which is usually code for ‘we can’t sell them anywhere else.” Trying to sell a fast-moving-consumer-good (FMCG) product yourself is the kiss of death unless your name is Ron Popeil. Another round of funding would demonstrate continued traction and momentum for this interesting little biomimicry company.
Better HVAC Systems from Bees
Much like chavs in a Manchester night club, bees communicate using dances and pheromones. It’s the latter species that our next company took inspiration from. Founded in 2005, Canadian startup Encycle has taken in (based on various sources) at least $40 million in disclosed funding. Their most recent round, a $7.5 million financing round from a group of advanced energy investors, closed just days ago. That money was used to build Swarm Logic, a software-as-a–service (SaaS) solution that enables commercial and industrial customers to lower electric costs, maximize efficiency, and reduce environmental impact. The methods which bee swarms use to communicate helps Encycle’s small wireless controllers interact within smart buildings to reduce the single biggest energy expense – heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC).
If there’s one thing we like more than SaaS business models, it’s companies whose value proposition is saving other companies money. Swarm Logic customers routinely reduce HVAC electric costs and consumption by 10 to 20 percent with little or no capital investment. In the past couple of years, Encycle customers saved over $10.5 million in energy costs while reducing CO2 emissions by nearly 60,000 tons. Swarm Logic has been deployed at over 1,000 sites, a number which may soon become much larger. Last March, American conglomerate Honeywell integrated Encycle’s energy management software into Honeywell Multisite’s building automation system platforms. Let’s just say that news has greentech investors coming around in swarms.
Low CO₂ Cement from Marine Organisms
Cement is the second most consumed product on Earth after water, so it’s no surprise we’ve been seeing lots of “green cement” startups cropping up. Our belief is that these green substitutes being peddled need to demonstrate superior economic value outside of just the “green” appeal. Subsidizing green solutions will never scale. That’s why we love companies that offer green products at the same or lower prices than their dirty substitutes – like Fortera.
Founded in 2017, this San Francisco company with undisclosed funding doesn’t say much about itself in Crunchbase, our go-to database for startup information. That’s probably because the team is too busy executing on their proprietary recarbonation (ReCarb™) process that works by tapping into the existing feedstock and equipment at cement plants to re-carbonate calcium oxide with waste CO2 from kilns. Production carries on – business as usual from the quarry to the kiln – while less temperature and fewer ingredients are required. The biomimetic aspect is the inspiration the company took from the way marine organisms build structures like coral reefs using calcium carbonate.
For every ton of Fortera cement used, almost half a ton of CO₂ is permanently stored in whatever gets built. The best part? It costs 10% less than traditional cement without sacrificing quality or performance. Fortera’s product and production process are in the commercialization stages and will be consumer and partner ready by early 2022.
Most biomimicry startups have great stories that people can easily understand based on our common understanding of nature. The danger with some of these startups is that they’re a good idea looking for a problem.
Having an idea isn’t enough. There needs to be traction in the form of paying customers, especially reference customers, that can be used to sell even more products or services. Biomimicry is now attracting the ESG-types, which means investors need to be extra cautious. Just because an idea sounds good and will benefit the planet, doesn’t mean it’s going to scale.
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